Allen Say’s picture books have been praised for their masterfully executed watercolors and beautifully honest texts. The deep feelings they inspire in young and old may owe to Say’s own childhood experiences. Each of his books addresses the experience of cultural ambiguity and self-discovery that Asian American youth inevitably face growing up in a predominantly Caucasian society. “I do children’s books because I am haunted by my childhood,” Say has explained.
Allen Say was born in 1937 in Yokohama, Japan to a Japanese-American mother and Korean father. His early childhood was tainted by World War II years when Japan suffered severe hardships under the war effort. Say fell in love with drawing by the age of six even despite disapproval from his father who envisioned his son becoming a successful businessman. With encouragement from his schoolteacher Say continued to pursue his passion. At the age of twelve Say’s parents separated, leaving him in the care of his maternal grandmother.
Say’s work was further encouraged by famed cartoonist Shinpei. Say convinced Shinpei to accept him as an apprentice. During the four years of Shinpei’s mentorship, Say learned both Japanese and Western drawing styles. Shinpei would be remembered fondly by Say as a father figure—a relationship touchingly recreated in Say’s award-winning novel The Ink-Keeper’s Apprentice.
At the age of 16 Say moved to the United States and was enrolled in a military high school by his father. After being expelled for smoking a cigarette, Say returned to Japan to discover that he had become a “cultural hybrid”—neither completely American nor entirely Japanese. He returned to America where he studied architecture at the University of California, Berkeley for two years before being drafted into the army.
Say became a firing-panel operator of a missile system carrying the same type of atomic warhead used to obliterate Hiroshima during World War II—an event burned deeply in Say’s childhood memories. During his service Say took up photography and was recognized for his work which was eventually published in Stars and Stripes.
Returning from military service Say worked as a commercial photographer. He would later admit that “photography lacked the mystery and depth of painting” and continued to work on his drawings between shoots. Say was soon approached by Houghton Mifflin to create the artwork for the Japanese folktale, The Boy of the Three-Year Nap. That won him the Caldecott Honor, one of the highest awards given for illustration. Say began writing and illustrating his own picture books.
In his award-winning novel The Ink-keeper’s Apprentice (1994), Say nostalgically recaptures his early apprenticeship with Shinpei in a story about a thirteen year old boy taken as an apprentice by a master cartoonist. The book won praise as a “sparkling, touch-true portrait of a young person coming into his own.”
Say continued to integrate his personal life experiences into several other works including Tree of Cranes, Home of the Brave and Grandfather’s Journey. The Caldecott Medal-winning book Grandfather’s Journey retells the story of his maternal grandfather’s experiences in contrast to his own immigrant “cultural hybrid.” Say’s prose was described by one reviewer as “simple and unaffected” and his illustrations: “astonishingly still, like the captured moments found in a family photo album.”
Say is notable for his sophisticated themes and hauntingly beautiful illustrations. Undertaking the journey of personal development, his books recapture his own mixed childhood experience of hardship, endurance and a long path to self-discovery. Say once reflected, “I decided, at age fifty, that this, more than anything else was what I wanted to do. I reverted to my childhood to my happiest days when I used to go to my master’s studio, warm my hands in front of one of the charcoal braziers, loosen my fingers, and start working on his beautiful drawings.”
Say believes that “a good story should alter you in some way; it should change your thinking, your feeling, your psyche, or the way you look at things. A story is an abstract experience; it’s rather like venturing through a maze. When you come out of it, you should feel slightly changed.” Say remains a full-time writer and illustrator living in Portland, Oregon.